Translation Tuesday: “Gracey” by Clare Azzopardi

One day, Gracey turned up at the shop. Lost. Befuddled. Out of place.

Tuesday means we are back with more translations! This week is a first for us as we travel to Malta with Clare Azzopardi’s story “Gracey”, translated from the Maltese by Albert Gatt. A sense of glumness and class disparity permeate this beautiful story.

Helen always looks glum. She finds it so much easier to look glum. She won’t give anyone that satisfaction. She looks glumly upon the vegetables sold by Fredu who’s parked, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the next corner down from where she lives; she looks glumly at the fresh ġbejniet on the counter in Vitorin’s hovel of a shop, before she asks her to wrap four up for her; she looks glumly at the girls wearing pink shoes and the boys whizzing past on bicycles; she looks glumly at the women who put a chair out on their doorstep on summer evenings and while away the time chattering or reciting the rosary; she looks glumly into every shop window in Republic Street and every shop window beneath the arcades; she looks glumly from where she’s sat, surrounded by shoes, at the people walking past in a hurry; she looks glumly at Polly, who’s always scrounging for empty lemonade bottles; she looks glum as she dusts the shoes in the shop, as she counts the cash, as she raises the shutter, as she lowers the shutter; she looks glumly at her own face in the ancient, brown-stained mirror hanging on the wall in the dark, narrow corridor and at her own image in the long mirror inside the wardrobe door. She looks glumly at her mother, aged and doddering, as she sits in an armchair in the balcony with the shutters closed listening to the radio against her ear.

All those jobs she dreamed of when she was younger—cloistered nun, superior at the M.U.S.E.U.M.[1] for girls, mother of three, president of the Legion of Mary, leader of the Girl Guides—and she had to end up as an assistant to Miss and Miss Higgins.

The British Shoe Store beneath the infested arcades in St John’s Square in Valletta belongs to Bonnie Frances Higgins and Beatrice Rose Higgins: a pair of spinsters who were brought up and spent their early years in a modest apartment in Vincenti Buildings and the rest of their lives in a larger, airier apartment on the top floor in the same block. Helen raises the shutter and turns on the lights. She grabs a dry cloth and begins to wipe down the shop window. She grabs a broom and gives the place the once-over. Then she perches on the stool behind the wooden counter. Turns on the cash register. Looks at the piles of boxes lining the walls to check that everything’s still in place. Counts those boxes that jut out with a shoe on display. Twenty of them. And then she waits for customers. Meanwhile she stares at the shoes on the boxes: a dress shoe with a sensible heel and an elastic strap across the ankle, in brown, black, café au lait or grey; a slip-on shoe with elasticated sides that will expand to accommodate the foot, in café au lait, white, grey, brown or black; flat sandals with a strap along the side in brown or white; a girls’ First Holy Communion shoe in white; a woman’s wedding shoe in white or the colour of weak, milky tea.

She’s worked at the British Shoe Store since she was fifteen. Miss and Miss Higgins had had enough of the strictures of opening times and the dreary routine that was part and parcel of owning a shop in Valletta, so they asked Ġaċinta, their cleaning lady, to allow her daughter Helen to help out. No doubt, Ġaċinta hadn’t the slightest interest in unprofitable occupations—becoming a nun, say, or a M.U.S.E.U.M superior, president of the Legion of Mary or leader of the Girl Guides. On the eighteenth of August 1978, Ġaċinta and Helen stood before the British Shoe Store waiting for Miss and Miss Higgins to turn the street corner, open up the shop and tell Helen what she was expected to do from then on. Before she left, Helen’s mother put her mind at rest with a prayer to Saint Helen whose feast was celebrated on that day and she asked Miss and Miss Higgins to pass Helen’s wages on to her.

Although Helen looked glumly upon the world, she was a fast learner. After only a few months she began to open the shop herself at nine in the morning so Miss and Miss Higgins could have their little lie-in, close shop at one in the afternoon so Miss and Miss Higgins could go and have their lunch at Café Cordina with their friends, re-open at four so Miss and Miss Higgins could go to the hairdresser and have their hair done in a bun, close shop at seven so Miss and Miss Higgins could go to the Manoel Theatre, or the talkies, or take a walk in Hastings gardens or the Upper Barrakka, or maybe go to a little do for a friend at the Casino Maltese.

The people who buy their shoes from the British Shoe Store fall into two categories. There are those who have ugly feet, with toes ravaged by aggressive fungi, or with bunions, or with one toe straddling another, or with cracked, calloused heels, or merely swollen, weathered, dirty feet, guaranteed to stink the place out the moment they take off their shoes; and then there are those who have pretty feet with waxen toes, the toenails invariably painted brown or red, the nails neatly trimmed—the sorts of people who walk into the shop knowing exactly what they’ll end up buying but wanting to try on all the shoes nevertheless, because they have no inhibitions. People in the first category are after something flat and practical in a discreet colour. The others, though safe in the knowledge that their feet are pretty, are usually after something simple with a sensible heel and a safe colour because theirs are conservative feet. If loud colours and stilettos give you the shudders (no matter how much you really want to wear them, deep down), the British is the place for you.

Helen never volunteers any advice. She never says that suits you or that doesn’t, try this one or that other one. Helen won’t give anyone that satisfaction. Generally, the people with ugly feet are in no mood for chitchat and generally, the people with pretty feet just want to say their piece and aren’t interested in Helen’s views. Helen knows the clients who come to the British Shoe Store like the back of her hand. She knows exactly which of them will never utter a word and she also knows the ones whose presence in the shop amounts to an invasion. Take Mrs Carr, for example: when she brings her daughter Lucy along, she’s bound to want to take down every pair, handle it, try it on, tell her what she’s been up to in the last month and what’s coming up next month and spend at least an hour in the shop. Then there’s Ninny Buckle with her hair in a shiny bun trapped in a thin stocking like a bread roll at the back of her head, who buys a pair of shoes every six months; sometimes it’s brown, sometimes it’s black, sometimes it’s got a buckle, sometimes it doesn’t. She walks in and sits down straightaway and it’s Helen who brings her the shoes that match her size and taste. Mere glances are enough for them to communicate. No words exchanged. But whenever Miss and Miss Higgins are in, usually between ten thirty and noon and again between five and half past six, the shop is transformed into a barrel of laughs and stories. Stories of last night and of tonight evening. Speculation on who’s been invited to So-and-So’s do and who’ll be at the concert on Saturday and what they’ll wear and who they’ll be with and which box they’ll be sitting in and who knows who’ll be in the box opposite and the one next door. When Miss and Miss Higgins are in, they take over with the clients and Helen spends her time dusting the shoes or the boxes or wiping down the shop window. Sometimes they send her out for a pastry or a pastizz from Cordina.

As they approached seventy, Miss and Miss Higgins began to turn up at the shop less frequently. It wasn’t that they’d run to seed or had lost interest in their appearance or no longer drew their hair up and back, it was just that they were tired and although in spirit they could have passed for someone who’d barely hit thirty, their flesh was considerably worn. Sometimes Helen wonders what will become of the British Shoe Store when they die. But she doesn’t dwell on this for long because it’s none of her business after all. She’s fallen into the habit, every morning before she opens the shop, to pay them a visit, have a chat with them, make them some tea and maybe some toast, bring them the Times of Malta and read out the obituaries to them. She prepares a pot of soup which they can just warm up later. As soon as she closes up shop in the evening, she carries the cash over to theirs and joins them for a cup of tea. Sometimes she tells them who bought what. After which, she goes straight home, feeds her mother, washes her and puts her to bed. She turns off the radio and turns on the television. On television, she stares at tall, thin women wearing shoes the likes of which she’s never seen.

One day, Gracey turned up at the shop. Lost. Befuddled. Out of place. This Bice and Bonnie’s place? She turned up out of nowhere. Wearing a reddish dress. Sloppy. Old. Slack. Limp. They’re not in. But this is Bice and Bonnie’s place is it, Missis, ħi? Can I help you? She sat herself down and asked to try on the black pair in the window. Which one? The one with the strap at the back! Got a stone the size of a teabag on the side. That pair of shoes hadn’t been in the window for long. Nobody had bought a pair yet. According to Helen, that gemstone was far too gaudy. What size? Size 5. Helen got her a pair her size and Gracey, having studied it closely and even smiled at it a little, tried it on. Wouldn’t have this in red, would you? No. It’s been ages since I bought one of these. They sell nice shoes, Bice and Bonnie, decent and all, but colourless. Missis, the name’s Gracey . . . yours? Miss and Miss Higgins don’t come down here so often these days. Are you taking that? Should I? But it does go well with this dress, doesn’t it? We used to hang about together. Well not exactly together. They weren’t really our type. But we went to the same bar. Are you taking that? How much? Twenty-five. What? Helen had already started wiping it down before putting it back in its box. You know, I think I will take it. Now, that’s about right, isn’t it? She studied her face as she took the money. She put it at the bottom of the pile of cash in the register. She’d never seen this one before. That right, missis? Yes, yes. She took out a plastic bag, shoved the box into it, handed it over to her. Gracey, from the Morning Star, you tell them. The one who lives in Eagle Street, that’s me, you tell them.

She spent half the day trying to make up her mind whether or not to call Miss and Miss Higgins. In the end she didn’t call. As she pulled down the shutter, at a quarter to one, she thought she glimpsed a red dress like Gracey’s turning the corner. But when she went over to see whether it was in fact Gracey there was no red dress in sight. On her way home she thought she could see her walking some way ahead of her. But she lowered her head and didn’t pay much attention. At home, she tried not to think about the whole business too much.

All afternoon she wondered whether or not to call Miss and Miss Higgins to ask about Gracey, but the clients didn’t let up. Because Mrs Camenzuli came by and she’s got bunions and she wanted to buy a pair of flat-soled shoes; Mrs Cacciattolo came by and she’s got arthritis and she wanted to buy a pair of flat-soled shoes; and Miss and Miss Wain came by and they bought a pair with heels for a wedding they were going to on Sunday morning. Ms Testa came by, the daughter of Dr Testa, and she bought a pair with flat soles and another with heels; and the Montesin sisters came by but they didn’t buy anything. At twenty to seven, Helen began to count the cash and jot down the shoes she’d sold in a little notebook. She was twenty-five liri short, but there were twenty-five pounds sterling instead. Someone had pulled a fast one on her. They’d given her bad money. She cast her mind back to every single woman, every handbag they’d held and every purse from which they’d extracted cash. They were all clients she knew well. The only one she didn’t know was Gracey. It must have been her who tricked her, she decided, and made up her mind to track her down.

And so, that day at seven o’clock sharp, instead of going to visit Miss and Miss Higgins, she pulled down the shutter over the shop front and made her way briskly towards Eagle Street, some way down past St Christopher Street. She knew the Due Balli area even though she was from the Archipelago herself. As soon as she started down the steps in Eagle Street, she spotted her outside, wearing the same red dress, polishing the knobs on a big green door.

She from the sanità? she heard someone screech from a balcony. If it’s from the sanità tell ’em about the filth in these parts, shame on the lot of them, there’s rats the size of cats. He’s tried, God knows, the poor Gentleman, but it looks like they got wax in their ears, these folks. You from the sanità, ħi?

Helen said nothing. She saw Gracey looking at her while she polished the bronze knobs on the green door. She descended the stairs slowly. Poor Gentleman, he’s a nice man, always gives us something for the trouble, for doing the cleaning, see? He keeps telling them, over at the sanità, but like Kitty says, they must have wax in their ears, won’t listen to nobody, they won’t, luv. Ever since they knocked down that house over there, Missis, see that? the woman in the balcony continued, and dumped all sorts of junk, see, see that Missis? Such an infestation of rats, you wouldn’t believe! Can’t go out at night, even, such big rats there are! Meanwhile, Gracey was still polishing the doorknobs. Did you need something, then? Yes. What? I’d like you to tell me more about Miss and Miss Higgins. Look, I’ve just finished for the Gentleman here. Care for some Leminora? Won’t you come in?

It was an old house, Gracey’s, with a door that had once been painted green and had doorknobs, wooden ones probably, but now only had two loops of rope, dangling there like the breasts of a woman who’s suckled too many children. Come on in, luv. Let’s pour you a bit of Leminora. Helen walked into a dark room that smelt of mould and dog piss. Not frightened of dogs, are you? That’s my Toni, that is, won’t bite you, he won’t, only does that ’cause he doesn’t know you. Down, down, Toni ħi, get away now. She pointed to a tiny sofa in a tiny, dust-covered room no bigger than a speck of dust. I’ll bring you something to drink in the meantime. She came back with a bottle of lemonade and plonked it on the table. Helen lifted up her glass and noticed that it was cracked and dirty. Go on then, have some Leminora! Helen picked up the bottle to pour herself some and realised it was empty. So she put it back on the table. She didn’t say a word. Glumly, she observed her surroundings, the sitting room strewn with wilted plants, the kitchen, or what passed for a kitchen, with Formica surfaces that were peeling off and the doors hanging off their hinges, the bathtub in the kitchen, with a tattered yellow plastic curtain around it. Two rooms, that was all, and they seemed to be used for everything: cooking, eating, washing, giving birth, watching television (though there wasn’t one), quarreling, dying. A narrow corridor led off to another room, the bedroom. Perhaps there was a toilet as well. Would you mind if I used the toilet? ‘Course not, you’ll have been keeping it in since you opened the shop this morning I bet. Through the corridor there, luv. Try not to pay attention to the junk lying about, those children make a mess everywhere they go, the little devils.

There was no junk. It was completely empty except for the grimy saucers, which had probably been scattered about for the dog to eat from. But there was no food in them. She went into the bedroom. There was a bed with no mattress and a wardrobe with a single door hanging loose, the letters pdm carved into the wood. The inside of the wardrobe was a black hole, as deafening as the silence all around. In one corner was a curtain with a toilet behind it; it had once been white but was blackened now, and there was no water in it. No flushing either. But there was a tap with a pail underneath. She opened the tap but no water came out. So she didn’t go. She went back to the sitting room. What was it you wanted to know about Bonnie and Bice, then? I don’t know. You told me you knew them well.

Remember the Morning Star? I remember people used to talk about it. Well Bice and Bonnie used to come down there, see? Helen’s glum look didn’t seem to be putting her off at all. At the Morning Star, in Strait Street. Right, ’cause many Maltese would come down for the dances, see. They weren’t our type, though. They didn’t, I mean, earn their keep, earn their tin coins, see. They only came down for the Americans and the English. To dance, I mean. They were pretty, Bonnie and Bice. But they never married, I think, isn’t that right? Mind you, we were pretty too, you know. Pretty and air-headed, is what we were. Not, I mean, that we’d go with every man and his brother, you know. Say, we’d go up to them, Buy me a drink? Can I have another one? And we’d have water with our Coke instead of whisky, or a bit of watered-down Crème de Menthe. And all above board, I mean. Everyone had their badge. I mean a badge that meant you were allowed to work, see. Got it from the police station, you know? Say, there was this badge meant you could serve drinks or this other one meant you could play or sing, see what I mean? Won’t you have some Leminora? Won’t you take anything at all?

I also wanted to ask you about the shoes you bought this morning. Well, we were always at each other about who looked the nicest. Wore a new dress every day, me. And always at each other to see who’d earn the most tin coins. She scratched her head and a flurry of dandruff snowed onto her shoulders and her hand came away with a strand of hair that she brushed to the floor. Know about the tins? She stood up from the sofa and walked slowly towards the sideboard. Some nights I’d make a hundred of them. Know what a hundred meant? Ten quid, that meant. Just then, Helen realised that Gracey was standing barefoot. She tried to remember what shoes she’d had on that morning but couldn’t. The sideboard was old and had a green marble top and legs carved in the shape of lions’ paws, a sideboard that had once been beautiful but was now riddled with woodworm, one of its legs completely decayed.

She opened the top drawer and there was nothing there, the second was empty as well; from the third, she took out a tin can. Inside were a few tin coins, which she passed over to Helen. We worked at the Morning Star. I always worked there. Me and some other women. We were out to make the men buy, say you’d go up and say Buy me a drink. Come on darlin’ buy me another, you want? I was good with the drinks. And I was all straight. Meaning I didn’t go off with every man and his brother. I’d say come find me there and I’d give them a false address, see. ‘Cause with me, soon as it was closing time, it was straight home. Unlike Mary, say. Know Mary? She’d get up to all kind of capers, her. Nothing scared that one. Blew off every penny on gold thread and dresses, see what I mean? They’d get them over from America for her. So she’d look the prettiest. She’d go to the private room, that one would. Made a dogsbody of my little brother, she’d tell him, Now you stand guard, and after ten minutes or so he’d begin to make a racket like the police were coming and the sailor would make a run for it. Always had her dogsbody ’cause there was this one once, got murdered by that sailor. A madman, they said he was, dunno how many times he stabbed her with a knife, slashed her with this knife, you know? So Mary, she was a good friend of ours, she’d have her dogsbody, my little brother. What about Miss and Miss Higgins? No they weren’t that type, see. They just got in our way, me and women like me. They’d flirt with some sailor and the minute he made so bold they’d leave him in the lurch. Upper-class types, they were, ħi, not from the Due Balli, they weren’t. Always ambled down there behind their father’s back, went to a dance hall or to eat at the Brittania or to the talkies and the Morning Star they really liked ’cause it was a nice place, eh, really nice. One day their father came for them, you should’ve seen how he dragged them up from there. Minxes, they were, real afreets, weren’t even scared of their father. They all went mad for them. Every sailor who came down these parts.

Helen studied the tin coins in her hand. They looked like ten-cent coins, engraved with the letters NL. See, we’d make loads of those things. Had all the money you could possibly wish for but we spent every last penny. So. Whose girl are you then? Ġaċinta’s, known as tal-Ħorża. From St Paul’s. Really, that where you’re from? So how long you been working for Bice and Bonnie, then? A long time. They still alive? Who? Your ma and pa. Not my father, God rest his soul. You married? I wanted to ask you about the shoes from this morning. Me, it was Ġużi from the Roxy Dance who pulled me eventually. And I really had him under my thumb. Everyone loved Ġużi. Even I did, you know, I loved him but those Americans, now them I really liked. Always wanted a tall blond one. But no such luck. See, there was this Johnny once, he loved me, said come with me, said he owned a big farm, I make you rich and I’d’ve gone and all, me, I’d’ve gone. But I chickened out. He wanted to go into the private room with me once and I was scared. Told him, come find me at this address and I made one up. Come find me after eleven, I said. Dunno how I made it up, I just gave him an address, whatever came to mind. And you’ll never guess whose it was! Bice and Bonnie’s. Went to knock on their door, he did. Bice opens the door and he’s bewitched. Put a spell on him, she did, I tell you. I saw him with her then, the next day, I guess and the next and the next. Dunno what she told him about me, ’cause he never said another word to me. Wouldn’t even look at me anymore. Didn’t even come up to me and say You gave me the wrong address or anything. Nothing. Forgot all about me, just like that, see what I mean? For sure she must’ve told him something but I never got to know what it was she’d made up. But then, she wouldn’t take him either in the end, or maybe he wouldn’t take her. And then Ġużi turned up and I stayed with Ġużi.

A sudden silence fell over the armchairs, among the plants that looked as if they’d been starved of the sun for a long time, among the dog hairs that stank like a sewer. ‘Cause he really loved me, Johnny the American. Really did, and me, I really loved him too. He was tall and well-built, handsome. And blond. She ever mention Johnny to you? If only I’d stayed with Johnny! No, I’ve never heard of him since. So what d’you come by for, again? I came for my money. You gave me bad money this morning. Silence. If you’ve no money to pay for the shoes I’ll just take them back. Silence. The shoes you bought this morning, Missus. I’ll take them back if you don’t mind. Which ones, child? The ones you bought this morning, with the gemstone on the side. You said the stone was the size of a teabag, do you remember? She went into the room. She could hear her opening and shutting the drawers. After a short while she came back to Helen with an old pair of shoes, with torn straps, a gemstone on the side. My favourite ones, these were. Bought them from the British. Nice ones, they were. They always had nice shoes, Bice and Bonnie. Just the way I like them. These the ones you mean? What d’you want with these? They’re worn out now. Now why don’t you take some Leminora, you must be thirsty. Shall I bring you some biscuits? No thank you, I have to go now. You taking the shoes? ‘S the only pair I’ve got left. Dunno where the others are. Those little devils of mine, they must’ve taken everything.

Helen left behind the door which had once been green and had once had doorknobs, left behind the wide, slippery stairs, a narrow, filthy street, with washing peeping out at her from balconies and the glance of an old woman who asked her if she was from the sanità. As she walked down Old Bakery Street she realised she still held Gracey’s tin coins in her hand. She thought of returning them to her. But instead, she turned towards where Miss and Miss Higgins lived. They must be worried about her, she was so late that day! She rushed straight upstairs and knocked on the door, they asked who is it, it’s me, Helen. You’re so late, dear. Has something happened? Bonnie opened the door and asked her in. I won’t be coming in today, my mother must be worried sick, I stayed out too late, she’ll be waiting for me to feed and wash her and put her to bed. But I came by to give you these. She opened her hand and gave her the coins. What are they? I met Gracey from the Morning Star this morning. She wanted to know what became of Johnny the American. Gracey? Gracey who? She bought the shoes with the gemstone, the ones with the gemstone on the side like a teabag and she paid me with these instead of money.

Gracey? Yes. From the Morning Star, she said. Eagle Street, she said. But Gracey . . . Ġużi’s Gracey . . . Gracey’s no longer with us. Where’s she gone? She’s gone, Helen, dear, it was a long time ago. She was murdered by a sailor. An American. They found her in the bath. He stabbed her with a knife some forty times. This was a long time ago, you know. It didn’t happen yesterday. It must be about twenty years now. But why don’t you come in, Bice can tell you much more than I could. Are you sure it was Gracey? Yes. Gracey is who she said she was. She was wearing a scruffy red dress and she bought a pair of shoes with gemstones and she gave me those tin coins from the Morning Star.

Translated by Albert Gatt

Published in Maltese by Merlin Publishers

Clare Azzopardi is an award-winning writer who writes for both children and adults. She is the Head of Department of Maltese at the University of Malta Junior College and her work has been translated into several languages. Her play L-Interdett Taħt is-Sodda was published in French (Éditions Théâtrales, 2008) and in Arabic (I-ACT, 2009). Her latest short story collection Kulħadd ħalla isem warajh (The names they left behind) was published in Croatian (VBZ) and Hungarian (Noran Libro) and will also be published in Romanian and Slovenian. Clare Azzopardi took part in several festivals and in 2015 she was chosen as one of Europe’s New Voices. 

Albert Gatt trained as a linguist and computer scientist and is currently the Director of the Institute of Linguistics and Language Technology at the University of Malta. In addition to his academic research, he has been translating poetry and prose from Maltese into English for several years. Recent translations include Immanuel Mifsud’s memoir In the Name of the Father (and of the Son) (Malta: Midsea Books, 2015) and Adrian Grima’s poetry collection Last-Ditch Ecstasy (Malta: Midsea Books, 2017 and Mumbai: Paperwall Publishing). He has recently completed a translation of Juann Mamo’s modernist classic Nanna’s Children in America (1934).

[1] The Society of Christian Doctrine (M.U.S.E.U.M), founded by St George Preca in Malta in 1907, teaches Catholic doctrine to children, youths and adults.

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